Sullivan Progress Plaza commemorates 50 years

The historic plaza was the first African American-owned, operated and managed shopping center in the United States.

The Sullivan Progress Plaza on Broad Street near Oxford, which opened in 1968, is the namesake of civil rights icon the Rev. Leon Sullivan. | RYAN ENOCH / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Sullivan Progress Plaza, the first shopping center in the United States developed, owned and managed by African-Americans, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.

The plaza on Broad Street near Oxford is a historic landmark for the North Philadelphia African-American community. It was established by the Zion Baptist Church congregation and its pastor, the center’s namesake, the late Rev. Leon Sullivan. 

The plaza was completed in 1968 and now has 12 commercial tenants. It has been an economic stronghold for the local community. 

 “I remember when they cleared the grounds to build this place,” said Byron Nelson, 68, who was 17 years old and lived on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 23rd Street when the plaza opened. He knew Sullivan personally.

“It was our first Black-owned large business at the time, and it really meant something to us,” he added.

Sullivan Progress Plaza was financed by Sullivan’s “10-36” plan. Members of the Zion Baptist Church donated $10 per month for 36 months toward the future shopping center’s development.  

About $200 of the donations went toward creating a for-profit stock corporation called Progress Investment Associates, Inc. PIA’s stock sales helped fund the construction of the plaza and it owns the shopping center today.

Sullivan also started the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc. in 1964 and opened a job training center in North Philadelphia. Many graduates from the training program found jobs at Sullivan Progress Plaza when it opened.

 “You’re thinking about having jobs being created, a new atmosphere,” Nelson said. “It gave us a lot of inspiration. Just what it said, ‘Progress Plaza.’ Progress. We were moving forward, moving up.”

In 2008, The Temple News reported the plaza was renamed to Sullivan Progress Plaza during its renovation to honor Sullivan, who died in 2001.

Left: Progress Plaza in February 1969. Right: Progress Plaza in November 2018. PHOTOS: ALL MANSFIELD, ELLIOTT MASER, DYLAN LONG / THE TEMPLE NEWS | INTERACTIVE: IAN WALKER / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Former presidents like Richard Nixon and Barack Obama have visited the historic site. 

Wendell Whitlock, the president and CEO of Progress Trust, Inc. and PIA chairman, said the importance of the plaza is about more than its visitors. Progress Trust is a nonprofit corporation created in 1999 to receive funds from nonprofit and governmental organizations for the redevelopment of the plaza in 2009.

 “The most historical significance of the plaza? That it’s still there,” Whitlock said. “It still exists, it’s still operational, it’s still running.”

In the 1960s, Whitlock participated in selective patronage, a series of 29 boycotts between 1959 and 1963, organized by Sullivan and 399 other Philadelphia ministers against companies that refused to hire African-Americans. The boycott included Tasty Baking Co., Pepsi-Cola, Standard Oil and other petroleum companies.  

The group of ministers negotiated accommodations with these companies while African-American residents boycotted products until they agreed to carry out the demands. In 1969, Sullivan estimated that the boycott opened up more than 2,000 jobs.

Since 2008, Sullivan Progress Plaza has housed many businesses, including the Fresh Grocer, Payless ShoeSource and Sunray Drugs. The United Bank of Philadelphia has been in the plaza since 1999, the longest of all current tenants.

“I’m grateful and thankful that the market is close and convenient to where I live,” said Angela Starks, who lives near Allegheny Avenue and Broad Street.

Jonathan Robinson, a branch manager at United Bank, said the shopping center has changed over the years, noting the development of Fresh Grocer.

“We [saw] a new business come in,” he said. “I know the people in this area were, no pun intended, hungry for a supermarket, for quite some time and it was great that they finally got the supermarket they’d been so desiring.”

“The anniversary was great,” Robinson added. “Mr. Sullivan, his legacy lives on through the plaza, so I know he would have been proud. He envisioned a shopping center in this area, and it’s still thriving long after he passed.”

North Philadelphia residents celebrated the Sullivan Progress Plaza 50th anniversary on Oct. 27 in a luncheon at the Philadelphia Electric Company building in Center City. The event honored those who kept Sullivan’s ideas alive and featured U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans as the keynote speaker. Whitlock was also honored at the luncheon.

“I feel immense pride that it has thrived and flourished for 50 years,” Whitlock said.

Although Sullivan Progress Plaza may have a long history, Progress Trust, Inc. is far from done with its work, Whitlock said.

“We’re laying out some partnerships with builders, developers who are active in the area, and just looking to expand our influence in the area,” he said.

1 Comment

  1. An excellent commemorative review and reflection of of collective efforts of a still thriving project.
    Well done!

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